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Arts / Receiving ‘mind-blowing’ news – Hadfield wins six-figure literary prize

Jen Hadfield: 'It is not something you ever expect would come to you'. Photos Dave Donaldson

IT HAS taken a while for Burra-based poet Jen Hadfield to process the life-changing news that was broken to her one dark winter’s evening some weeks ago.

And who can blame her? What would have been your response when you received a call announcing you are in line to receive around £140,000 for being an extraordinary writer – and please take our cash so that you can focus on what you do best?

You would think it is a hoax; and that is exactly what Hadfield did, at least initially.

But it was real, and now over a month later and with the award being made public tonight (Tuesday), she feels “so grateful’, but somehow still cannot fully comprehend what happened to her: “It is not something you ever expect would come to you.”

Hadfield is one of eight Windham-Campbell prize winners set to receive $175,000 each in support of their work offering financial security and creative freedom.

“I was in shock”, she admits, adding that it took “a while to settle into that feeling and to feel comfortable with it”.

“It is good that they give you a long time before they announce it,” Hadfield continued.

One of the most significant and prestigious international literary awards, the Windham-Campbell Prizes celebrate achievement across fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama.

Based at Yale University, this major global prize recognises how challenging it can be to work in the creative industries.

Hadfield had no idea this “mind-blowing” news was heading her way as writers do not apply for the prize, but their names are put forward by nominators invited by the anonymous prize giving committee.

Announcing the prize on Tuesday, the committee said: “Jen Hadfield’s intricate poems slow down time, reveal overlooked details of the natural world, and forge complex relationships between language, history, and place.”

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She said: “Poetry is such a funny fish, isn’t it? You are working away, and you expect to read to a really small audience, and it is lovely when can give a reading to four people and they are connected to what you want to say and are appreciative of that. So, happening something like this is just mind-blowing.”

The seven other prize winners are:

  • Deirdre Madden (Ireland) – fiction
  • Kathryn Scanlan (United States) – fiction
  • Christina Sharpe (Canada/United States) – nonfiction
  • Hanif Abdurraqib (United States) – nonfiction
  • Christopher Chen (United States) – drama
  • Sonya Kelly (Ireland) – drama
  • m. nourbeSe philip (Canada/Trinidad and Tobago) – poetry.

Born in Cheshire to a British father and a Canadian mother, Hadfield is an award-winning poet, bookmaker, and visual artist who moved to Shetland around 16 years ago.

Her second collection of poetry Nigh-No-Place won the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2008, making her the youngest ever winner at the time.

Having studied English Language and Literature at the University of Edinburgh, her extensive awards and honours also include a Highland Books Prize, an Edwin Morgan International Poetry Award, the Dewar Award and an Eric Gregory Award.

Writing in English, Shetlandic and Scots dialect, Hadfield’s poetry deeply focuses on the environmental and social perceptions of her home, from the negative impact of human activity on Shetland’s ecology to contesting the classification of people and places as remote and isolated.

Director of the Windham-Campbell prize Michael Kelleher said: “A Windham Campbell Prize is intended to offer financial security, and through this freedom, the time and space to write, to think, to create – all without pressure or expectation.”

Jen at her desk in her newly built home in Burra.

Speaking to Shetland News earlier on Tuesday Hadfield described that new found freedom as “an amazing feeling”.

Having become a mother of a young boy eight months ago and shortly after moving into her new house with a mortgage to pay, financial worries have never been far from her mind.

“I don’t think I have bought anything in my life without really questioning it carefully. I haven’t really made any decision yet about what I am going to do [with the prize money], but it will be about security and freedom.

“I moved into a house in the past couple of years that I built laboriously and painfully for six or seven years. That was in the throes of Covid, the cost for building materials went through the roof, and what was meant to be my affordable little house became a lot less affordable, and then the mortgages went nuts.

“I have worried for a few years and if nothing else this will take that worry away, and if that is all it does then that’s a phenomenal thing because worry does impact on creativity.”

Being a mother she is fully occupied right now, but when time allows she is in the process of finishing off the final edits of her non-fiction book Stormpegs which is about Shetland and will be published in July.

She also working on a book of selected poetry for publishers Picador. And in September, she, her partner Euan Crawford and baby Robin will all be flying out to America for the prize giving ceremony.

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